It all began over a cup of tea. In fact, it was many, many cups of tea before Riza Gilpin, founder and co-owner of Tumblewood Teas in Big Timber, Montana, decided to make her favorite comfort ritual her life’s work.
“Tea has always been a part of my life,” Riza says. “Ever since I was very young, and always throughout my life, I thought I would do something with tea.”
But it wasn’t until after Riza visited friends in Montana 25 years ago and fell in love with the state “at ﬁrst breath” that she would get into the tea business full-time. In 2009, Made in Montana member Tumblewood Teas began from Riza’s home.
The “grass roots” approach was utilized as a marketing model by serving samples of her teas at local venues such as the Livingston Farmer’s Market, the Big Timber Women’s Bazaar, and the Chokecherry Festival in Lewistown. She then began introducing the idea of offering a higher quality tea experience to area restaurants and resorts such as Chico Hot Springs of Pray, Montana; they became the ﬁrst to jump on board to make Tumblewood Teas their signature tea supplier.
It soon became apparent that help was needed in setting up displays at events and talking with customers who stopped by the Tumblewood Teas booth, so Riza enlisted the help of Kyle, son of her friend Laurie Rennie. It wasn’t long before Laurie (a born-and-raised Montanan) started coming along to a few local events, and “she actually became very interested, in the business,” Riza says. “And, never having been a tea drinker before, was starting to express enjoyment of tea itself, which was for me even more fun to share”. Laurie would become the co-owner of Tumblewood Teas.
Soon, many free samples translated into enough business that Tumblewood Teas outgrew Riza’s garage and landed in a small ofﬁce building in Big Timber.
“And that’s where Laurie and I really started to work hard at Tumblewood,” Riza says. “We literally hit the road. And I mean, we covered the entire state of Montana.”
For several years, they traveled across the state, and then expanded their reach to bring Tumblewood Teas into the neighboring states Wyoming and Idaho, creating awareness of the growing “tea trend”. While expanding Tumblewood Tea’s presence, long time partnerships were being forged with important venues such as Montana State University Culinary Services, and Yellowstone, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks guest and hospitality services. It was again time for a bigger building, and this time, a few employees. Fast forward: With the dedication of those employees, Tumblewood Teas is now distributed throughout the entire United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) and Canada.
As Tumblewood Teas continued to grow, Riza and Laurie made it a priority to support local artisans and build relationships with other local businesses. This meant working with local distributors such as Quality Foods Distributing out of Bozeman and Food Services of America (now U.S. Foods) and Blue Streak out of Billings. They also encouraged an independent sales rep to get her own business (From Montana with Love) off to a good start selling high-quality, Montana-made products that included Tumblewood Teas, honey and accessories. Many of these partnerships were formed while attending the Made in Montana trade show in Helena and the Billings Market.
The traveling duo was on the road, and their signature Travelin' Tumbler accessory was, too, making ﬁne, loose leaf tea on the go a convenient reality. Comprising nearly a quarter of their sales, the Travelin’ Tumbler also brought new product ideas to the forefront, generated from fellow entrepreneurs such as Ewe Hoo Design of Bozeman and Red Sky Designs, Billings. Respectively, they began making alpaca and sheep wool cozies from the scrap remnants of hat-making and the creative manufacture of cozies from bison hide.
But as much effort as Riza and Laurie put into supporting local Montana businesses and artists, they were bothered by the fact that they sourced the Travelin’ Tumbler from China.
Along with their disappointment in not being able to support American manufacturing with their tumbler, logistical problems with importing from China eventually became too much. Time differences, language barriers, additional costs and shipping delays to overcome drove Riza and Laurie on a search for a manufacturer closer to home.
“In our search, we found a manufacturing facility right here in Manhattan, Montana,” Riza says. “And I can’t express how excited we were to ﬁnd Plastic Design & Manufacturing. Even though we would be a small piece of their business, they are completely committed to the idea of supporting ‘local business partnerships.’”
A planning grant from the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund through the Montana Department of Commerce allowed them to move forward with their goal of making their best-selling accessory Montana-made. Since last fall, Tumblewood Teas has been solidifying the tumbler design with another Commerce-supported business, Salient Technologies in Bozeman, and their manufacturing contract with Plastic Design & Manufacturing in Manhattan, Montana.
“There are so many reasons we want to bring the manufacturing of this product to the U.S.,” Riza says, “but the most important one is to be able to stamp ‘Made in the U.S.A – Montana, USA’ on it which just gives us great pride and a true sense of accomplishment!”
Then, in March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Montana. As with nearly every aspect of daily life, the pandemic changed the way Tumblewood Teas does business. Riza and Laurie saw the writing on the wall early. They adjusted their employees’ schedules to spread out shifts to allow for social distancing and began working with an online analytics company to help boost Tumblewood’s online presence. Today, more than 20 percent of their sales are now online.
They also received $20,000 through the Business Stabilization Grant, a program created by Governor Steve Bullock and operated by the Department of Commerce using federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. As a result of those efforts and funding through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, not only has Tumblewood Teas been able to keep the business running through the COVID-19 crisis, but has also been able to keep all six of their employees.
The Manhattan, Montana-manufactured tea tumblers are still on track to be introduced after the ﬁrst quarter of 2021. Thankfully, there is still enough inventory in place to get Tumblewood Teas through the holidays.
“I’ve always said Montana is one very big supportive neighborhood,” Riza says. “It truly is a blessing for us to have the relationships that have been formed through Tumblewood Teas, both internal and external, in addition to the lifestyle that we enjoy. And being able to bring more jobs and beneﬁts to our state makes being a business owner that much more satisfying.”